Books: I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reed

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reed had been on my radar for quite a while before I finally got around to reading it; the novel actually came out in 2016, and I’d seen a great deal of critical praise for it, and noticed it got recommended on a lot of different book review channels on YouTube, so I bought the paperback and put in in my enormous TBR pile. Then I realized that back in 2020, Netflix had done a movie adaptation of it, directed by Charlie Kaufman no less, so I decided to read the thing and watch the film within a day or two of each other and sort of compare them.

So this isn’t going to be a movie review necessarily, because I mostly want to focus on the book, but I will get somewhat into how the book differs from the movie without really spoiling anything too much. A caveat, though: just as in most of my book and movie discussions, I may talk about some mild spoilers, or give you more information about the book or film than you might want if you’re planning to read/watch it, so if you’re like me and prefer to know as few details as possible before reading a book or watching a movie, then to be on the safe side, you should probably wait to read this until you’ve read the book. The novel isn’t a long read; it’s only about 250 pages, and it’s not even as long as that sounds because the leading in the paperback version is pretty large (if you’re not a graphic designer, the leading is just the space between the lines on the page).

The author of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Iain Reed, is Canadian, and he had written two books prior to this one, though both were non-fiction. This novel, his first, turned up on numerous “best of the year” lists, and it seems to have many stellar reviews on Goodreads, but I will note that there is a not insignificant percentage of the reading public who REALLY hated it or really did not get it. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say the book is divisive, but it definitely is one that is not going to be appealing to certain types of readers.

I will say right out of the gate that I loved it; I found it very unsettling, and it gave me some very strange dreams. But the thing about this book is that it’s very literary; not in the way that it’s written, because the prose is actually quite terse and straightforward, not flowery or dense or hard to understand, but just in the themes that it explores and the fact that it’s tinged with surrealism. The book doesn’t really give you a definite narrative; that is to say, things do unfold in a sort of progressive, plot-like fashion, but a lot of the things that happen in the book are internalized or in monologue form, and there are several philosophical discussions taking place between the characters. There are also numerous references to other books, poems, movies, and the like which are not always pointed out, so in that way it’s something of a puzzle story, though you don’t have to understand all the references to enjoy the ride. It’s absolutely a book that needs a second read, though, because once you get to the end and figure out what’s been going on, it sort of recontextualizes everything that has come before. So you get to go back and pick up all the threads, and see where the little breadcrumbs were that led to that final revelation at the end. Personally, I really enjoy that type of story, but I understand not everyone does, and might find this sort of thing frustrating.

This is also one of those books that is difficult to classify, genre-wise. I would still call it a horror novel, though it’s not a thriller or a ghost story; it falls under the broad umbrella of psychological horror, I suppose. I was actually quite amused at the blurb on the back of the book, which reads in part, “You’ll be scared and you won’t know why,” and to me this seemed a very succinct and accurate summation. The book is really insidious that way; you’ll be reading it, and there will be these interactions between the characters that seem sort of random and meaningless, but little by little, details will sort of worm their way into your head, and very slowly, they come together and build up this enormous structure of unease and menace, and you can’t quite put your finger on why you feel so anxious. And it isn’t even necessarily that some of the images the book places into your brain are horrific (though a few of them are); it’s just these little things that are sort of creepy by themselves, and even if you don’t know exactly what they mean, these little creepy things kind of drip into your consciousness until you realize you’re wigged right out. I found that I was still thinking about this book days after I read it, just basking in this disquieting vibe it gives off.

Now, if you’d like a plot synopsis, I’ll oblige, though this isn’t really a plot-heavy book. The unnamed narrator is the girlfriend of a guy named Jake, and, as the title suggests, she’s thinking about ending things with him. From her internal monologue, you’re led to understand that the couple have only been dating for six or seven weeks, and while she seems to like Jake as a person and they have a good time together, she’s beginning to feel as though their relationship is not going to work out over the long term, and perhaps she would be better off alone. This leads to her going off on a kind of philosophical tangent about relationships in general, and whether you can ever really know another person, and even whether humans are better off going solo to avoid so much of the baggage and drama that come with sharing your life with someone else. She hasn’t told Jake any of her thoughts on the matter, obviously.

So at the start of the story, the couple are on their way to visit Jake’s parents, who the narrator has never met. The book is not set in any particular place; it’s just somewhere rural and cold, and it’s in the middle of a snowstorm. Jake’s parents still live on the farm where Jake grew up.

The narrator is beginning to feel guilty about not breaking up with Jake prior to them going to meet the parents, as she obviously feels that certain expectations come with that event, and she doesn’t really want to lead Jake or his family into believing that this relationship is more serious than it is. On the other hand, though, she’s a bit conflicted, because she tells herself that she can’t really think of any concrete reason why she wants to break up with Jake, and maybe if she just sticks it out, everything will work out okay in the end.

The first third of the book is essentially just this couple in the car, talking to one another, and broken up by the internal monologue of the narrator. Every now and then, something will trigger a memory in the narrator’s mind, usually from her childhood. One particularly eerie scene, at least for me, was when she recounted one of the scariest things she ever saw: when she was a child, she recalled, she woke up one night and saw a man outside of her window, and she was convinced the man was looking at her, even though he was so tall that his head was over the level of the top of the window, so there was no way he should have been able to see her. All she could see of him was his torso and part of his legs. And then this man waved at her, and at that point I was just like NOPE, fuck that. I don’t know why the description of that image freaked me out so much, but there we are.

At the beginning of the second act, they arrive at Jake’s parents’ place, and then the book starts to get even more ominous. As I mentioned, there’s a snowstorm, and the house is very remote. The couple had just planned to come for dinner; they weren’t going to stay overnight. The farm is a little weird when they first get there; there aren’t many animals on it, but the narrator sees a couple of things that disturb her, though they’re not anything overtly horrifying, more like things that would wig someone out if they weren’t used to being on a farm.

But once they get inside and meet the parents, the weirdness ramps up, though again, it’s nothing obviously horrific; the parents don’t come across as serial killers or Satanists or anything like that, but there are just all these little things: they take too long to come downstairs when Jake calls them, for example, and seem as though they didn’t realize that the couple were coming. The mom acts really strange, and complains that one of her toenails is missing. Stuff like that. The narrator at one point goes into the basement and finds these really weird drawings, and then she goes up to Jake’s old room and finds more sort of odd things there, and has a really bizarre conversation with his dad. The parents try to get them to stay because of the worsening weather, but they decline, because they both have to work the next day.

After they leave, they decide for some reason to stop at Dairy Queen for ice cream, even though it’s the middle of a snowstorm. They do that, but then afterward don’t really like what they got, so Jake insists that they have to go down this remote road towards his old high school, because he’s sure there will be a dumpster there to throw away the cups. He REALLY does not want the cups left in the car, because he complains that they will get the cupholders all sticky (even though getting the ice cream was his idea in the first place).

They go down this lonely road and find this school out in the middle of nowhere, at which point Jake leaves the narrator in the car to go and find a dumpster to dispose of the cups. And from that point forward, the book becomes something more akin to a chase or stalker type story through this darkened high school, though there’s a lot of other stuff going on beneath the surface that I don’t want to spoil. It ends with a reveal that, as I mentioned earlier, puts all the earlier events in the story in a completely different light.

So if you’re a fan of literary or surreal horror that sort of sneaks up on you unawares, then you will probably dig this as much as I did.

Now let’s talk about the film adaptation for a bit. It was directed by Charlie Kaufman, who has come up with such classic movies as Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Synecdoche, New York, and lots more. So I feel he was an inspired choice to direct a movie version of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, because this sort of mindfuck content is right in his wheelhouse.

Right off the bat, though, I will say that although I would call the novel horror, I would hesitate to classify the movie as such. The film follows the same plot beats, and the general outline of the story is the same, but it’s presented more as a sort of strangely philosophical and depressing tale, though darkly funny as well. It has creepy moments, but to nowhere near the extent that the book had them. Also, Kaufman added many of his own touches, such as homages to Oklahoma! and A Beautiful Mind, which were not in the novel (though the book did have references to other books and movies; just not those particular ones). By and large, I didn’t mind this, as Charlie Kaufman is known for having his own offbeat vision; for example, his brilliant film Adaptation is actually a meta-film about his own troubled process of attempting to adapt Susan Orlean’s acclaimed book The Orchid Thief to film.

On the other hand, I did feel as though Kaufman’s changes and additions strayed so far from the spirit of the source material that it catapulted the movie into a completely different genre. The movie was good, but it didn’t creep me out the way the book did, and particularly the third act of the film, set at the high school, was completely different to how I pictured it when I read the book. In the novel, that part was quite eerie, with the descriptions of these long, dim hallways lit only by exit signs; in the film, that part was well-lit, which really undercut the menace. On the whole, the sense of claustrophobic isolation I felt from the book, with all the snow and the weird unsettling details, was not present in the film to any great degree.

I will note too that in my opinion, if you watched the movie without having read the book, you probably wouldn’t have any idea what the fuck was going on. I’m not sure if this would be the case for everybody, and since I did read the book before seeing the film, I guess I’m not the best judge of that, but some reviews I read of the movie said as much. When the final reveal comes at the end of the book, the reader definitely has an A-HA moment, as everything falls into place. In the film, I felt like the reveal, while pretty much the same as the book, was obscured somewhat and not as obvious. So while I did like the film, I wish it had been tonally more like the novel was.

In closing, I would recommend the book to anyone who is into sort of surreal, unsettling horror, and I would recommend the film to fans of Charlie Kaufman’s other work, as the film is way more a Charlie Kaufman joint than a straight adaptation of the novel. And if you’re planning on watching the film, I would definitely recommend reading the book first, as it will help you sort out some of the film’s more inscrutable aspects, though keep in mind that the whole mood of the movie is way different than that of the book.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s